My Debate with Randal O’Toole: Video

It was fun to finally meet famous anti-transit and anti-planning writer Randal O’Toole, and spar politely with him in a Washington DC event sponsored by the Cato Institute.

We inevitably talked past each other a bit, but it was a great session.  I only wish there had been more hard questions from libertarians.  Here’s the video.  You can also download a podcast here.

20 Responses to My Debate with Randal O’Toole: Video

  1. Steven Dorst October 4, 2018 at 4:57 pm #

    Nothing linked for a podcast version.

    • Anthony Barba October 14, 2018 at 12:14 pm #

      It’s an audio file … download and sync to your device. That’s how I did it.

  2. Ben G October 5, 2018 at 4:35 am #

    Some comments…

    Randall says that “transit is declining” in US urban areas greater than 5 million. Is this actually true? If so, then why is the NYC metro crowded at historic levels for the past 5 years? Aren’t many other areas (like Portland) at or very near all-time ridership highs? Also, he notes the general decline in many specific urban areas — but isn’t a lot of this due to underfunding, poor mass transit network design, and our car-centric sprawl and subsidies?

    In other words, if transit was better implemented and on a more level playing field with cars, wouldn’t many more people use it? And on the other hand, wouldn’t this be inversely true for cars, if we didn’t have highways and the interstates? Wouldn’t A LOT FEWER people put up with the horror of automobile commuting if took 5x longer and was less direct?

    He also says that 1/3 of US transit funding depends on public subsidy. Don’t roads depend on 70% public subsidy? Gas tax only covers 30%, yet it seems like he just completely ignores this.


    And isn’t the DESIGN of U.S. cities itself A SUBSIDY FOR CARS?!?!?

    Why does nobody mention this? Jarrett, feel free to steal that line from me… 🙂


    “… expensive transit projects that don’t carry very many people.” — well duh, if you do transit poorly (despite spending a ton of money) AND you subsidize autos at 70% (not to mention wars in the Middle East for oil)… of course nobody will use transit. Nobody wants to spend an hour going 10 miles, as it is with transit in many American cities.

    Waymo is “moving lots of people” —— LOLOLOLOLOLOL!!! Right.

    Randall’s debate basically boils down to “Transit in the US sucks because we’ve implemented it poorly — and/or designed our cities to specifically NOT accommodate mass transit – and COMPLETELY favored cars in our policies and planning (and by the way, let’s ignore every other country that has done transit successfully)… so let’s just get rid of public transit instead of figuring out how to make it better.”


    Randall also seems to think that *pointless*automobile travel (such as commuting or just going from boring Point A to boring Point B) is equal to “desirable automobile travel” (such as going camping in the mountains). I’d wager that most Americans spend a MUCH larger proportion of their time doing completely POINTLESS, soul-sucking automobile travel — and this is time that could better be spent doing things like socializing with their friends or spending quality moments with family. Like, why is 15,000 miles per year behind the wheel of a car somehow “better” than 7,000 miles per year? This is just stupid.

    Any time NOT spent driving a car is TIME YOU GAIN BACK TO ENJOY YOUR LIFE. I’d rather ride for 30 minutes on a train than 20 minutes driving a car even though I theoretically (in Randall’s mind) “saved” 10 minutes, because when I’m on a train I can read, sleep, work on my laptop, etc. When you’re driving you can’t do anything productive (most people don’t carpool) and especially in rush hour, you have a lot of added stress and frustration.


    Also there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY that 60% of travel in Japan is by car. That is impossible! (my Japanese wife agrees). 80 PERCENT of the Japanese population lives in dense urban areas (50% in just THREE metros), and the VAST MAJORITY of those people travel by foot, bike, train, or bus. It makes no sense whatsoever to own a car in a major Japanese city since the trains and buses are cheap, frequent, fast, comfortable, and 100% on-time. I know it must be hard for Americans to believe, but mass transit in Japan really can take you almost anywhere — their standards are FAR beyond Greyhound or BART. I live in Osaka, and even if my salary magically quintupled tomorrow, I still wouldn’t buy a car.

    Where does Randall get this false statistic?

    Has he ever been to Japan? He seems to have a skewed view of transportation here.


    Unless I missed it, neither of you really touched on the fact that space dedicated to cars (whether highways or parking), especially in urban areas, is space that could be put to a HIGHER USE. Such as revenue-generating businesses, housing, little neighborhood parks or green space, or just simply not slicing up and segregating existing neighborhoods (you guys kinda skimmed this at the very end when Randall brought up a Mt Hood Expressway).

    I can tell you from personal experience growing up in the suburbs of Georgia, that we also lose a lot of prime farmland to suburban sprawl. A LOT. Randall seems to think that all farmland is the same (when he cites how we have an abundance of it) but it’s NOT… soil is different, climate is different, etc… — and his faux statistical blathering about farmland and urban boundaries just confirms to me that he doesn’t know WTF he is talking about.


    I’m also disappointed that this debate barely mentioned cycling or walking as valid modes of transit that cost many orders of magnitude less than trains or streets engineered for buses / private autos. IMHO, smart U.S. cities should be dedicating MUCH MUCH more of their transportation space to accommodating safe and efficient walking and cycling. I know it’s not “sexy” but we really need to build from the ground up. Support walking first, then biking, then buses, then trains. Make each one truly excellent before moving on to the next level. I think in many American cities, the ROI for supporting walking and biking for ALL AGES and abilities is HUGE and is being overlooked to an incredible degree.

    Especially in cities where a large percentage of the people live and work in the same urban environment (vs commuting from a suburb), any trip under 4 miles should ideally be done on a bike or on foot. All these idiotic transit projects (like streetcars) that connect places less than 4 miles apart (and nothing much else) are throwing money down the drain. That’s an easily bikeable distance, even for a grandmother or a child… and even a simply average cyclist can pedal faster than the average speed of most non-BRT buses or streetcars. What could $100 million do if it was spent on walking and biking instead of a short 4-mile streetcar loop? I can tell you — you’d get at least 100 miles of premium Class 1 off-street bikeway. On top of that, wide sidewalks and Class 1 bikeways have very little ongoing costs once they are constructed (no trains to maintain, no drivers to pay, wear and tear on the pavement is significantly less, etc). Why is this not being discussed?

    • Marc October 5, 2018 at 6:59 am #

      Ben, as I always say to the highway folks, “Transit isn’t subsidized at all; in the US transit is *itself* a subsidy for bad development that is inaccessible to the 50%+ of the population that is too young, old, poor, or disabled to drive. So why do we continue to subsidize – nay, mandate – such shoddy, illegally-inaccessible development?”

      Transit is just as much a subsidy for poor land use decisions as the yellow school buses are for horribly located and oversized regional public schools.

      • Ben G October 7, 2018 at 4:32 am #

        Great way to think about it!

    • asdf2 October 10, 2018 at 7:25 pm #

      +1 on all of Ben G’s observations.

      Some additional of Randal’s points I thought were particularly glaring:

      1) He grossly underestimates the cost of owning a car, and completely ignores the financial burden it imposes on the working poor, who have no other means to get to work. The way he talked so cavalierly about how cheap cars are, and how we just should buy poor people cars instead of running buses, he makes it sound like a car costs less to own and maintain than a bike.

      2) He grossly underestimates car subsidies, counting only the federal highway trust fund, ignoring the following: fighting wars over oil supply, interstate highway construction of 50 years ago, the taxpayer-funded bailout of automakers in 2009, parking requirements, tax deductions for commuter parking, local property taxes funding local roads, traffic enforcement, free or severely underpriced street parking.

      Parking requirements in particular is a huge subsidy, and largely invisible, buried into the cost of housing, groceries, and everything else.

    • Peter L October 12, 2018 at 8:49 am #

      > Randall says that “transit is declining” in US urban areas greater than 5 million. Is this actually true? If so, then why is the NYC metro crowded at historic levels for the past 5 years? Aren’t many other areas (like Portland) at or very near all-time ridership highs? Also, he notes the general decline in many specific urban areas — but isn’t a lot of this due to underfunding, poor mass transit network design, and our car-centric sprawl and subsidies?

      No real threading here, so this will have to do. First – always leave out NYC from transit decisions. Of the 10B unlinked trips in the FTA ridership DB, 2.6B are on MTA subways. Another 700M are on MTA Buses. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to add in the numbers for MTA’s LIRR and MNR, PATH, and most of NJT, all of which, for the most part, service NYC. So leave NYC out – it’s truly an outlier.

      Second, NYC ridership, particularly on the subways, is declining. And, see #1, a decline in NYC numbers makes “transit in the US” look bad because they are, essentially, the bulk of it. See, for example:

    • Andrew H October 22, 2018 at 9:14 pm #

      I work in Osaka and live in Hyogo. I don’t know where he got the 60% statistic, but it’s pretty obvious that things would fall apart here were it not for the trains.

      Car ownership is pretty common in Japan, but considering that expressways are tolled, parking minimums in land-use planning are unheard of, and proof of off-street parking within 2 km of one’s home is required to register a car, I’d say that Japanese drivers are paying for a lot more of the environmental costs of driving than American ones are. And on the plus side, on the occasion that I do rent a car to go somewhere, the expressways are pretty free of congestion.

  3. Sean Gillis October 5, 2018 at 11:05 am #

    Fascinating, thanks for taking part and for posting. The difference between American transit politics and Canadian transit politics is huge. The arguments around transit in Canada are much less partisan. The right wants to private some services, work towards efficiencies, control labour costs, and generally supports surburban improvements more. But there is generally strong support for transit in both urban and suburban communities of any real size (say above 50k to 100k, give or take). In Halifax, this leads to the right-wing Atlantic Institute for Market Studies posting a strong op-ed in support of BRT, in the cities left-wing arts and culture newspaper, The Coast. (see below). Transit makes for interesting political partnerships in Canada.

  4. JW October 5, 2018 at 2:12 pm #

    Thanks for the lesson on how to debate in a way that is respectful to the lived experience of other people and doesn’t get hung up on nitpicking over numbers. I particularly liked how you gently but firmly quashed the argument about private vs public subsidies. I wish our political debates were more like this: a discussion of real trade-offs and values rather than a pissing match over who is more righteous. Well done.

  5. Vladimir October 6, 2018 at 11:20 am #

    I wonder if O’Toole confuses access and mobility deliberately to mislead people or does he genuinely believe that more driving (or any sort of travel) is somehow a good metric for quality of life.

    • Sean Gillis October 9, 2018 at 5:23 am #

      I think a debate between O’Toole and Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns would be interesting, and would get at this point directly. Strong Towns main premise is we can’t continue to expand infrastructure forever for fiscal reasons, so we need to be more targeted about what we build.

  6. Martin Duke October 11, 2018 at 10:50 am #

    Hi Jarrett,

    As always, you represented our corner quite well. A couple of comments:

    1. I thought you addressed Randal’s reliance on national averages quite well. Unfortunately, the debate question was poorly focused. National averages *do* matter when we’re making decisions about federal allocation of dollars, but they matter less when talking about regional ballot measures, and even less when we’re allocating street space in a neighborhood. The effectiveness of your argument is largely dependent on what question the listener is trying to answer.

    2. Randal quite succinctly summarized your core disagreement quite well at the end. He views the current distribution of housing density and transportation mode choice as primarily revealed preference, while (I assume) you view it as the product of decades of social engineering, and therefore not particularly revealing about true desires. This is a different debate, but perhaps a more interesting one to have.

    • oevans82 October 11, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

      Re #2:

      O’Toole’s closing statement combined with his some of his earlier comments lead me to think that his opinion is somewhat more stark than that. To the effect of “Maybe we should let New York just go the way of the rest of the rust belt” seems to indicate he thinks that, without taxation, regulations, and subsidy, cities like New York would not be able to sustain themselves and would simply wither and die.

      This raises the ages-old question of whether subsidies flow downhill or uphill along the population density gradient? It’s a really hard question to answer without ideological bias. Do suburbs subsidize cities, or is it the other way around?

      In a way, given the incompetence of the MTA and WMATA of late, I’m starting to think that cities may be shooting themselves in the foot regardless of who subsidizes whom.

      • Sean Gillis October 12, 2018 at 10:39 am #

        “To the effect of “Maybe we should let New York just go the way of the rest of the rust belt” seems to indicate he thinks that, without taxation, regulations, and subsidy, cities like New York would not be able to sustain themselves and would simply wither and die.”

        I found that an odd comment as well. As an urbanist, it seems clear that the amount of money flowing into New York, as a world leader in finance, media, publishing, etc. suggests that is is doing something quite right from an economic and wealth creation perspective.

  7. oevans82 October 11, 2018 at 3:45 pm #

    One thing that struck me was O’Toole’s rather neutral position on zoning, that it is sort of a natural product of peoples’ desire to maintain and increase property value by preventing change. Insofar as zoning is regulation that happens at a very local level, Libertarians might tend to think that it’s the “least bad” type of regulation. But still bad. After all, zoning uses the police power of the state to control what people can and can’t do with their property. And I was surprised that he did not articulate that in any way.

    I would expect him to be more in favor of the Houston/Libertarian model. If you want to control what gets built somewhere, beyond things that are indisputably harmful (basically toxic chemicals or pollution), either buy the property, add deed restrictions, and resell it; or else purchase an easement restricting development rights from the property owner.

    • Mike October 17, 2018 at 11:00 pm #

      What Houston has instead of zoning is private covenants. City zoning plans must allow every use somewhere and must appear to be minimally balanced, otherwise they can be overturned in court as discriminating against certain uses or people. That’s why cities have to allow strippers’ clubs somewhere; they can’t just ban zone them out of existence. But if a zoning plan says apartments are only allowed on a few square blocks, and jobs and cultural activities are on the opposite side of town so people are forced to commute several miles, that’s OK. But a private covenant can just ban apartments in the block or tract regardless of what the overall needs of the city’s residents are. And if every tract does that, then they’re meeting nobody’s needs except existing homeowners. And often the covenants are created by the original tract developer, and then a hundred years later their interests are dead and people’s needs have evolved but the deed restrictions live on. I’ve also read that Houston’s government puts city resources into enforcing private covenants so they have the force of law. I’ve never been to Houston so I don’t know where the apartments are relative to where people want to live, or how to square that with Houston’s reputation of having plenty of cheap housing, but the point is that private covenants may be worse than zoning.

  8. Glenn Scott October 28, 2018 at 7:42 am #

    Jarrett did very well in this debate.

    I am suspicious of pretty much all of O’Toole’s charts and statistics.

    First of all, none of them were footnoted. CATO claims to be a quasi-academic as opposed to a lobbying outfit and this omission is telling. Secondly, his base years are often changing. He used 2008, 2014, 1920, 2010, 2016 and 1970 Why? In a couple charts he uses “per urban resident.” Why? Fourthly, in his city sets, the cities are always changing. Why? Lastly, he has several charts calculated per mile. Why not per capita?